The Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers will start its search for the next operator of the .net top-level internet domain with a request for proposals that could be published as soon as mid-week.
The RFP will signal the start of a process that will decide who manages the central database of all .net domain names – which current operator VeriSign Inc says is one of the internet’s most critical addressing resources.
Picking the company that will run .net is probably the most important decision ICANN has ever had to make VeriSign’s VP of government relations Tom Galvin said. The small domain is disproportionately important, he said.
The ICANN .net registry contract is believed to be currently worth about $30m a year, and VeriSign will bid to keep the deal, which expires next June. But the firm will face competition from companies including Afilias Ltd and NeuLevel Inc.
VeriSign has spent the last few months recruiting support from the likes of Microsoft, IBM, MCI and Thomson Digital Media, all of which have written ICANN expressing varying levels of endorsement for VeriSign.
I think one of the things emerging from the .net process so far is how important .net is to the overall Internet and to e-commerce, said VeriSign’s Galvin. The company says 44% of Internet hosts need .net to work.
Galvin said that although the .net registry has only about 4.8 million names, a significant number of .com domains, including 37 of the top 100 sites, rely upon .net domains as part of their behind-the-scenes infrastructure.
Walmart.com, Microsoft.com and Amazon.com, for examples, rely upon name servers in the .net domain to resolve their web and email servers. When you browse Microsoft.com or Walmart.com, the DNS lookup is handled on a .net server.
By drawing attention to .net’s important role, VeriSign appears to be trying to frame the .net registry reselection discussion as one that should be focused on stability and performance rather than increasing competition in the registry market.
ICANN, which had increasing competition as one of its original mandates, has taken the unusual step of saying it will outsource the .net reselection process to an independent outside company, probably an accountancy firm.
ICANN believes that this will best insure a fair and independent process and will avoid any perceptions of possible bias or impropriety, said ICANN, which is currently defending itself in court from VeriSign’s claims it regularly breaches the .net contract.
The bidding companies seem to agree this is generally a good idea. Afilias CTO Ram Mohan said: ICANN is very sensitive to making a fair and equitable process, keeping a level playing field…. the question is how well the outsiders know the area.
Galvin said: We think that it is a good idea. The idea of a truly independent third party analysis by a major analysis firm will give people confidence that a decision is being made on the merits and not on the politics.
It is expected that the independent auditors will be told to make the technical credentials of the bidders the most important criteria, with market-oriented priorities such as pricing and competition taking a back seat.
Stability will be very, very important. Price may play some part of it down the road, but ICANN’s primary concern is the stability of the internet, said Roland LaPlante, VP of marketing at Afilias, which runs .info and .org.
At the start of 2003, Afilias took technical control of .org’s 2.6 million names from VeriSign, which had run the domain for several years. The transition, which was delayed for almost a month, was largely hitch-free from a stability standpoint.
Afilias is the only company on the planet that has the experience of migrating a large domain… and of migrating a large domain from VeriSign, LaPlante said. Afilias also runs .info, which now has about 2.5 million names.
The other major player already on the record as wanting to bid for .net is NeuLevel, a venture of NeuStar Inc and Melbourne IT Ltd, which currently runs .biz. NeuStar operates .us, the little-used country code domain for the USA.
With the ongoing stability of .net apparently set to be the core concern, attention is already being paid to the track records of these three registry operators in managing their respective domains.
Registries that operate under contract with ICANN have service level agreements to stick to, and every month have to report to ICANN how well they adhered to these levels of uptime and performance.
NeuLevel and Afilias every month each report 25 metrics on planned and unplanned downtime and performance on systems such as name resolution, billing, Whois queries and domain name transfers under their specific domains.
But VeriSign only reports four measurements, grouping together the stability of functions its rivals report separately. This makes it impossible, using publicly available data, to do apples-to-apples comparisons between VeriSign and its two known pretenders.
Name server availability is arguably the most important metric. While the DNS is resilient to minor availability issues, prolonged periods of downtime would inhibit Internet users’ ability to do basic things like send email and visit web sites.
Based on the latest registry reports, neither NeuLevel nor Afilias suffered from any name server downtime during the first six months of this year. It is not obvious from available numbers how stable VeriSign’s .com and .net name servers were.
Afilias is known, however, to have suffered from about 30 minutes of name server downtime in July, when certain portions of the internet could not access .org. This was due to a route advertising issue at UltraDNS, which manages servers for Afilias.
The .org SLA does, however, permit a maximum of 30 minutes of unplanned name server downtime per month. Afilias’s Mohan said users of some ISPs were affected by this problem, while users of other ISPs were not.
Some pro-VeriSign bloggers have also noted an incident last week when Afilias delayed some .info functions after it received an unprecedented one million new domain registrations – increasing the registry size by 66% in one day – due to a promotion.
Characterizations of this incident as a .info outage are incorrect, Afilias’s Mohan said, as the domain was available at all times. The decision was made to stagger the go-live time of these newly registered names to avoid overloading the system, he said.